My birthday was last Wednesday. Perhaps more than any other time of the year (yes, even more than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), the days and weeks leading up to my birthday are filled with personal reflection. Not that religious and secular new years don’t give me pause to reflect, but I think the lack of buzz around this personal event seems to offer me more space and time to think.
This year more than past years, I’ve been thinking about beliefs: what I believe in; how ideas and concepts that were important to me last year are less so this year and vice versa; how beliefs motivate me to act or not; what role belief plays in my life; why some beliefs demand solid resolve and others not so much; and so on. I wanted to share with you some of my personal reflection.
What do I believe in? I believe in love, compassion, action, justice, equality, fairness, goodness, peace, freedom, rights, opportunities and possibilities. I believe in the inherent goodness and value of humanity, animals and the planet. However, humans have not always lived well or made good choices. For example, the creation and continuation of patriarchy is evil. Yet, informed by my feminist and Jewish traditions, that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Humans have the responsibility to repair the world (tikkun olam) and the ability to bring about the olam habah (the world to come). In other words, we must act against the patriarchal structures that destroy the planet and harm its living beings and create new empowering, sustainable and just ways of living.
There are certain values that will help us along the way, such as education, compassion, empathy, acceptance, and autonomy. Education provides opportunities, greater understanding, better skills and self-discovery. The best education doesn’t always come from books and the university setting, but sometimes and in some fields those institutions are important. Education helps us make informed decisions and understand the world around us. For all these reasons, it is part and parcel of tikkun olam in my opinion.
In addition to education, I value compassion and empathy. This applies to humans, animals and the planet. Both can be great motivators when it comes to tikkun olam and more importantly both figure greatly in the olam habah.
However, I despise full and utter self-sacrifice. Denying the self to help the other may be a noble quality, but not when it is expected of some more so than others. Neither is it noble when one has no empathy or compassion for one’s self.
I believe women can do what men can and vice versa. Yes, some humans may be stronger than others or faster or smarter, but as we repair the world together I see no reason for these to lead to the devaluing of some and the overvaluing of others. I believe that strength does not have to mean violence or power over. Neither does intellectual acumen. Neither does the color of one’s skin or the amount of money one has or doesn’t. I believe women should have the right to choose what happens to their bodies and should be granted full autonomy to make such decisions. It is also true that some women don’t have female bodies, neither do some men have male bodies, and there are a whole host of bodies in between, and that’s ok. There will be a time when differences are celebrated and valued for the ways in which they make us stronger.
Speaking of strength and being strengthened by what we believe in and what we know to be true, I’ve been contemplating what role these beliefs play in my life. However oddly (and probably because of my schooling at Yale and CGU), I often think of Martin Luther when I think about actions and motivating factors despite his deep-seated anti-Semitism. Reflecting on the debates of the first Jewish followers of Jesus about what to do when non-Jews sought entrance to the community of believers, Luther emphasized faith above all else. Since anyone, non-believers included, could do good works, good works without faith were meaningless (he was speaking against Roman Catholicism on this point). In other words, he thought humans were saved by faith alone, and since humans weren’t inherently good (because of the fall), any good works/actions humans did were the result of such faith.
I can see Luther’s point to a certain extent: my behavior is motivated by what I believe in. But at the same time, I also think Roman Catholics were onto something when they valued good works in addition to faith. Yet, Jews understand things differently.
Jews have always stressed adherence to the mitzvot, performing good deeds (some would call this religious observance), over and above any such belief. In fact, actions to some extent show belief, but at the same time, one does not have to be a believer to act. In addition, how to act has been subject to much debate. Furthermore, in Judaism, actions both precede faith and are an aspect of it, yet can be done without any faith (in a higher power) whatsoever. This means that we can do good on our own without necessarily any reason or forethought behind it. Yet, actions, from a Jewish perspective, also strengthen one’s commitment to a certain community or communities, are considered to deepen one’s relationship to the Holy One and further tikkun olam and olam habah (by bringing more of the divine into the world).
So here again a reflection on beliefs ends up being a discussion about action. It seems to be part and parcel not just of Judaism, but of Christianity as well. Whereas for Christians, faith saves (grants eternal life), for Jews, action is the foundation of our covenant with the divine and that covenant is a here-and-now kind of thing. We are rarely, if ever, concerned with an otherworldly afterlife. So, what I believe is, to some extent, considerably less important than what I do. However, what I do is motivated by what I believe and vice versa.
As a feminist, I would add another layer onto this discussion of belief and action/good deeds. As I already mentioned, we have been raised in and socialized into patriarchy, a system that is not good. This system gets in the way of our inherent goodness. As we act out tikkun olam, we must rid our world of patriarchy. Only then will our inherent goodness shine in the new world we make, our olam habah.
I’m grateful for this time of year, when my birthday affords me the opportunity for deeper reflection. I believe another, better world is possible. Neither belief or faith alone will birth its existence. Rather, action will. However, while one may act without belief, belief supports action in countless ways. In the end, it may be that solid beliefs will bring about the olam habah sooner, G-d willing.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Feminist and Ecofeminist courses. She is a past Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years as an Adjunct Lecturer in their Religious and Theological Studies Department. She has taught at Boston College and Carroll University in Wisconsin. While her primary focus is Judaism and Roman Catholicism, her research interests range from the relationship between anti-modernism and anti-feminism in religious traditions and the rise of various fundamentalisms to queer theology and eco-feminism. Her publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents (2012). In addition to teaching and research, Ivy spends time learning Czech, painting, drawing, creating new kosher vegan delicacies and playing with her dog, Mini, and cat, Gabbi.